This year's cold/flu season, plagued by especially bad bug viruses, has driven consumers to seek defense by downing immune-system elixirs.
The sales numbers tell the story for demand of flu-related products in general.
Nielsen reported last week that consumers stocked up on preventive, treatment and sanitizing products at an increased rate. Thermometers, vitamins, cough and cold remedies, orange juice, cleaning products, tea and soup all reported year-over-year increases.
Researchers and industry observers say immune-system support products have particularly benefited during the severe flu season, with sales on some product up as much as 20% to 25%. Retailers merchandised an array of products that ranged from simple vitamin C to probiotics to special formulas of combo immune nutrients.
Wendy McLain, health and beauty aids merchandiser for Seattle-based PCC Natural Markets, reports that sales of cold and flu remedies and products that support the immune system are up 70% over last year.
PCC Markets' best sellers are: Alacer Emergen-C, Boiron Oscillo, PCC-brand vitamin D, Source Naturals Wellness Formula and, in general, hand sanitizers.
The retailer used its bi-monthly ad circular to promote these products.
Whole Foods Market, Austin, Texas, turned its stores into immune-support destinations by offering a wide range of immune-support products. Featured items are: Source Naturals Wellness Formula, which is said to “rebalance well-being”; Gaia Herbs Rapid Relief Black Elderberry Syrup, packed with vitamin C that “supports a healthy immune response”; and Whole Foods' private-label 365 Everyday Value Flu Ease, a homeopathic formula that “provides relief from body aches, chills, fever and other symptoms.”
The natural-food retailer also produced a number of podcasts and blogs devoted to cough-cold-flu topics. In-store lectures and brochures discussed differences between colds and flu; how ingredients like garlic turmeric, cayenne pepper and kale can help strengthen the immune system; which herbs and supplements provide immune support; recipes for immune system-boosting soups and smoothies; and seasonal wellness tips to help ward off colds and flu.
A local media source reported last month that a Whole Foods in Winston-Salem, N.C., set up two immune-boosting kiosks that displayed natural alternative medicines like echinacea, elderberry and probiotics. The store enjoyed a 10% boost in vitamin sales. Michelle Tisdale, Whole Body specialist, was quoted in the report as saying, “We also have a lot of new people who have never been in a health food store and want to try something natural. Some of the people are those who want added protection along with the vaccine and others are those who don't plan on getting vaccinated.”
With a scarcity of vaccines and a constant media barrage over the H1N1 “swine flu” virus and the seriousness of the flu season, consumers naturally sought out alternative remedies. “Our research shows 44% of those who take vitamins and minerals do so to help ward off illness. Additionally, some 29% of vitamin-takers say that they frequently change the supplements that they take based on new information in the news,” noted Molly Heyl-Rushmer, senior analyst for research firm Mintel International.
However, the demand for immunity supplements also has come with controversy over marketers' health claims.
Early this year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration published guidance for dietary supplement manufacturers on what it considers to be sufficient scientific substantiation for the health claims made on their products. The guidance, which takes the form of recommendations rather than rulemaking, refers to all nutritional deficiency, structure/function or general well-being claims.
Yet, the FDA and Federal Trade Commission were forced to issue warning letters.
As a result, some manufacturers and retailers had to change their labeling and health claims. Some faced hefty fines. CVS, Woonsocket, R.I., for example, paid nearly $2.8 million to settle FTC charges over misleading claims that its AirShield dietary supplements can prevent colds, fight germs and boost immune systems. The case was similar to those the FTC announced in 2008 — against Airborne Health, Improvita Health Products and Rite Aid Corp. — which involved dietary supplements that purportedly treat colds and the flu.
The FTC charged CVS with making false and deceptive advertising claims that using its product would reduce the risk of colds and protect against catching colds in crowded places, such as schools, airplanes, offices, health clubs, theaters or restaurants. The FTC alleged that the company had no evidence that the products could boost the immune system or prevent colds. A settlement with Rite Aid regarding similar claims for its Germ Defense products was announced in July, resulting in a Rite Aid consumer refund program.
Such cases put retailers on notice that they assume “gatekeeper responsibility” that the products they put on their shelves meet FDA and FTC standards, said Loren Israelsen, executive director, United Natural Products Alliance, Salt Lake City. “It's sometimes counter-intuitive for retailers who are interested in getting products on shelves but in this new regulatory environment, that is the message from the regulator to the regulated. The companies that sell the products have the same obligation.”
Other cases cited by federal authorities included Internet retailer DrWeil.com for its Immune Support Formula claims that the product was a prevention, treatment or cure for the H1N1 flu virus. The product contained astragalus, a traditional herb said to boost immunity, and immune-supportive polypore mushrooms.
Prior to the flu season, an industry coalition comprised of the American Herbal Products Association, Consumer Healthcare Products Association, Council for Responsible Nutrition, Natural Products Association and United Natural Products Alliance issued a statement advising against the use of dietary supplements as a swine flu remedy and cure.
“Nothing changes from year to year. This year we had an unusual, aggressive public concern about H1N1; we saw this new government take substantially more active steps than we saw in past years. Yes, that will continue,” said Israelsen.
The good news is the H1N1 flu, which has made this cold/flu season one of the more challenging in recent years for retailers, appears to be on the wane, health officials said.
Last week the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported visits to doctors for influenza-like illness nationally decreased sharply over the previous week with all regions showing declines. November marked the downward trend in H1N1 infections after a steady increase in October, the CDC said.
The severity of the flu season has boosted cough/cold category sales, including demand for vitamins and supplements. For the 52 weeks ending Nov. 1, Chicago-based Information Resources Inc. reported vitamin sales at food, drug and mass channels, excluding Wal-Mart Stores, rose 9.8% to $2.9 billion. Units were up 5.5% for the period.
On a retail channel basis, food store vitamin sales were up 8.5% to $930.8 million; units climbed 4.8%. Drug store sales rose 9.9% to $1.6 billion; units were up 5.7%.
It is difficult to determine the size of the immune support segment, but one thing is certain: In times of stress, it is human nature for people to seek out remedies to help them stay healthy.
Israelsen noted that immune defense supplements have been around since the nation's founding when people used natural remedies for a spring boost or to support natural defenses against cold weather or physical stress. “Consumers will continue to have great interest in the retail offering in the category.”